Sermon for 31st Sunday per annum
“...that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers...”RSV
St Paul is praising the Thessalonian church in his letter, for the way they received his teaching. As we heard last week, the Thessalonian Christians had been impressed by the kind of person Paul was, and clearly this led them to pay attention to his teaching. But Paul is at pains to point out that they received this teaching not as coming from Paul, but as coming from God. And because of that, God's word continued to work in their lives despite Paul's absence.
Contained within this sentence of Paul's letter to the Thessalonians is a fundamental tenet of our Christian Faith. For it is about what is known as divine revelation.
What do we mean by divine revelation?
First, divine revelation springs from a very basic understanding of the nature of God and the limitations of man. God is beyond human understanding. Human understanding of God will always be limited. While human reason can lead to a belief in the existence of God (e.g. as in Aristotle), it cannot get much beyond that.
Secondly, as well as acknowledging the limitations of human reason, we also believe that God chooses to reveal Himself to human beings. God doesn't have to of course, but He chooses to reveal Himself. And that in this revelation of Himself God supplies human beings with the highest knowledge of Himself – knowledge which human beings would otherwise be unable to know.
The prophet Isaiah expressed it all those centuries ago in this way: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the LORD.”
God is utterly beyond human beings, who are limited creatures, subject to all the forces of creation. Yet God has created us with the capability of receiving truth about God through God's voluntary self-revelation.
And this is an incredibly important and fundamental aspect of our Faith. If we don't get this right lots of other things will not slot into place and we will fall into error. And it is exactly this error that has fed many misunderstandings about the Faith in the last 40 or 50 years. The rise of rationalistic Christianity in this time springs from this error. The flaw of rationalistic theology is to elevate human reason above divine revelation. Most western university theology departments have been teaching this kind of theology. But it is flawed. It is flawed because it essentially rejects divine revelation. Modern theology will tend to regard Paul's teaching in his letters, as Paul's teaching only, and not part of divine revelation. So what the Thessalonian catechumens had recognised, modern theology has on the whole refused to recognise.
So whenever we read any kind of writing about God we have to ask this fundamental question: is it from God or just from man?
God revealed Himself gradually to the Jewish people, from Abraham the father of faith, to Moses, Elijah and all the prophets up to John the Baptist; and God has revealed Himself as completely as possible in Jesus Christ. For Christ is the complete revelation of God in human form. God cannot reveal more to us than was revealed in Jesus Christ, for Christ is God made man. (Christ isn't the whole of God, there is still more; but Christ is the fullest revelation of God that human beings are capable of receiving).
St Paul himself had received a direct revelation of the risen Christ on the Damascus Road, and had also received the teaching of the church, by the apostles and first disciples, who taught him what Jesus had taught them, and also what they had learned through the Holy Spirit. Paul shared this with the Thessalonians who were interested, and they received this teaching as God's revelation, as God's word – which is of course what it was, and is. Having received it as God's word they were converted by it, and they became Christians. And their conversion of their lives was so striking that people in the whole region were talking about it, and some were inspired themselves by it, and opened themselves to the possibility that this 'new teaching' could be from God. As people opened themselves to this so they themselves were converted and became the early church.
In the gospel we hear that the Scribes and Pharisees were not examples to the people in the way Paul would be twenty years or so hence. The Pharisees and Scribes could teach God's word but often instead imposed burdens on the people and were consumed with what they wore, their privileges and seeking public acclaim. Christ warned his disciples that this could happen to them if they were not careful. Christian leaders were not to be occupied with these things, but to be humble.
Humility is the key to hearing God's revelation of Himself. While the Pharisees and Scribes knew God's word in the Scriptures they did not hear it as such because it was not reflected in their lives. St Paul and the Thessalonian Christians showed they had heard God's revelation of Himself because it changed them, and people could notice the fruits of this.
If we are to be changed by God's word, then we must approach it as God's word, and humble our minds – in the way we heard in the psalm today:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.
The psalmist knows his limitations, and so must we. Human reason cannot get us very far, only by receiving God's revelation of Himself in the teaching of the church will our lives be changed, and like the Thessalonians, will people see that we have a faith worth having.